Sneaking fandom into taxonomy
Pop culture influences a lot of our daily lives, affecting things like our vocabulary and how we see the world. So it’s not surprising that people pay tribute to pop culture.
In science, this tribute usually comes in the form of naming things. The official, taxonomic names of many discoveries are governed by strict nomenclatures and rules — this is why we haven’t had any elements or chemicals named for pop culture references.
Instead, it’s left to biological scientists to celebrate their favorite fictional characters and cultural icons. Here are some of the best.
The most obvious pop culture homage in science may be the trilobite known as Han solo. Naming a species of trapdoor spider Aptostichus sarlaac is maybe the most relevant Star Wars reference.
Chewbacca has a weevil (Trignopterus chewbacca) and a moth (Wockia chewbacca) named after him, and Darth Vader gets a beetle (Agathidium vaderi) and a wasp (Polemistus vaderi). The acorn worm Yoda purapurata is named because the worm’s ears were thought to resemble those of the wizened, old Jedi master.
Gene Roddenberry’s creation has inspired many scientists over the years. One of the homages to the original series is Ladella spocki, a mussel whose valves look like the ears of a Vulcan. The Next Generation is represented by Annuntidiogenes worfi, an extinct hermit crab from the Cretaceous period that had ornamentation similar to a Klingon’s head ridges. Deep Space Nine, my personal favorite of the Star Trek series, boasts a species of beetle known as Agra dax.
Game of Thrones
Characters from G.R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels (and the popular HBO show inspired by it) have become the namesakes for two very different types of organisms: sea slugs and wasps. The sea slug Tritonia khaleesi was named after Daenerys Targaryeon, due to the sliver stripe on its back. Some of the wasps of the genus Laelius are named after the main Houses from the Game of Thrones: L. arryni, L. baratheoni, L. lannisteri, L. martelli, L. starki, L. Targaryeni, and L. Tullyi. Someone obviously isn’t a fan of the Tyrells or the Greyjoys.
The most famous video game reference in science is the gene and protein known as Sonic Hedgehog, which has a crucial role in the correct development of the central nervous system and limbs in human embryos. Initially, the Hedgehog protein was discovered in Drosophila melanogaster, a fruit fly species used to study developmental biology, and was so named because removing the gene caused the embryos to be covered in hedgehoglike spikes.
Interestingly enough, the man who named the protein Sonic Hedgehog wasn’t a fan of the video game series; he was inspired by a copy of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic that his daughter had bought.
Surprisingly few other things have been named after video games. One of these is Pikachurin, a protein found in the retina that is involved in forming synapses. As the name suggests, it is named after the Pokemon, Pikachu. Rapturellla ryani is a sea snail named after the setting of Bio Shock.
Considering the size of the fandom and the popularity of the books and films, it’s unsurprising to see the influence of Harry Potter. In the world of paleontology we have Dracorex hogwartsia, a pachycephalosaur whose name means “Dragon king of Hogwarts,” and Clevosaurus sectumsempra, named after the spell from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In the arachnid class there is Aname aragog, a trapdoor spider named after the giant spider living in the forest near Hogwarts. We also have Ampulex dementor, a parasitic wasp that preys on cockroaches.
Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was known for its creativity, humor and use of a ridiculous fantasy setting to mirror our own world. Although I doubt that even he would have imagined that a fossilized ginkgo species would be named after his creations. The extinct plant species G. weatherwaxiae, G. nannyoggiae and G. garlickanus are named after the main characters in his Witches novels.
Other fossilized plants named after Discworld characters include Czekanowskia anguae, Sulcatocladus dibbleri and Phoenicopsis rincewindii. For the fourth time in this list we also have characters named after species of wasps, which either says something about wasp scientists or about how many species of wasps there are. The wasps with Discworld namesakes, all of the genus Aeliodes, include A. atuin, A. binkyi, A. lipwigi, A. morti, A. ridcullyi and A. vetinarii.
The most apt of these is Psephophorus terrypratchetti, a species of extinct turtle named after the man who created a world that floats through space on the back of four elephants that stand on a turtle.
The Simpsons and Futurama creator Matt Groening is the namesake of a mole crab called Albunea groeningi. More recently we have Spongiforma squarepantsii, which is actually a species of fungus. Even Warner Brothers cartoons are represented, with the wasp species (yes, again) Cremnops wileycoyotius.
While researching this topic, I sadly found very few species named for comic book characters. The only super hero example was a fish named Otocinclus batmani, named because the markings on its tail resembles the bat signal. Campsicneus popeye is a fly named for its bulging forelimbs, similar to the spinach-guzzling sailor. The sand crab Lepidopa luciae was named after the Peanuts character Lucy, after Charles Schultz’s wife pointed out she was his crabbiest creation. Originally the crab was to be named after Schultz himself.
Spider-Man’s influence on scientific names comes, strangely enough, via the Sam Raimi films. A species of spider discovered in Iran was named Filistata maguiresi. There’s a gene in the flower Arabidopsis thalania called “Superman” that affects the shape of the plant’s petals. Fittingly, a gene found to inhibit Superman was named “Kryptonite.”
This article wouldn’t have been possible without two different resources — The Naming of the Shrew, a book by John Wright that focuses on interesting scientific names, and Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, a website that highlights many of the more unique and interesting botanical names.